A terrifying vision of Australia comes back to light

Ted Kotcheff – director of ‘The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz’ and ‘First Blood’ – is back in the limelight thanks to the rediscovery of his 1971 classic ‘Wake in Fright’, a film once described by Nick Cave as “the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence”

One would have to work pretty damned hard to pigeonhole filmmaker Ted Kotcheff. The Canadian director behind such diverse pictures as First Blood , Weekend at Bernie's and the Golden Bear-winning 1974 drama, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz could not be accused of creative atrophy. To date, his career has spanned six decades, several continents and countless countries – including this one.

"I directed Hugh Leonard's The Au Pair Man in the Dublin Theatre Festival with Joan Greenwood and Donal McCann – such a great actor – in 1970," recalls the 82-year-old. "I remember that trip so clearly. While I was there, the fishing editor of your newspaper took me out fishing just as the salmon were moving in from the sea. They'd snap at the lure not because they were hungry. But because they were seasick and irritated."

Kotcheff attributes his artistic flexibility to his early years in television. At 24, he became the youngest director at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where he presided over the anthology series, General Motors Theatre . Moving to the UK in 1958, he continued in a mutable mode, directing episodes of Armchair Theatre for ITV and collaborating with the Liverpudlian playwright (and screenwriter for A Hard Day's Night ) Alun Owen.

“People keep saying: ‘I don’t understand you Kotcheff’,” laughs the director. “But I hate to be constricted by genre. Who wants to direct action pictures all the time? Or comedies? Life would be very boring. Because I started directing in TV – every three weeks we turned around an hour-long play – I did every conceivable kind of genre. And I carried that into my film career.”

Famously, he almost killed Rambo, an act that might have a put something of a dent in the billion-dollar franchise that followed.

“The entire picture was conceived as a suicide mission; there was no place for Rambo in society,” says Kotcheff. “But I had cast Sylvester Stallone, and he always had a great sense of what audiences wanted to see. Like being shirtless. So we shot two endings and when we tested the original one the audience screamed and shouted and loved it – you’ve never seen such a reaction – until the final scene when he dies. You could have heard a pin drop until a voice in the crowd said: ‘If the director of this film is in this theatre, he should be strung up from a lamppost.’ I thought they’d lynch me. Lucky I just happened to have a different ending in my back pocket.”

At the high-fallutin' end of Kotcheff's protean oeuvre, Wake in Fright is notable for being one of only two films – the other is Antonioni's L'Avventura – to be screened, then revived, at the Cannes Film Festival. It almost didn't happen: for years, unbeknownst to the director, the negative of the greatly admired 1971 thriller was missing in action.

“The editor [Anthony Buckley] spent five years of his life and his own money trying to track down a print. He went to Dublin because there was a rumour they had a print there. He went to New York. He went all over the world. He was incredibly persistent. The film was processed in London. And the company had gone bankrupt and he was told the creditors sent the film back to America. And as he was going out the door, someone asked him if he had any use for the nine negatives that were sitting there, about to be incinerated. And he looked at them. And there it was.”

So Kotcheff had no idea the film was lost?

“No. And it’s one of my favourite of my own films. When he told me, I said ‘Tony, you’re a real humanitarian. Because you spent 13 years doing this and you never told me that the negative was gone’. If he had, whatever little hair I have would have disappeared completely. I might have died prematurely.”

Wake in Fright , a brilliantly butch outback adventure – and clear precursor to Mad Max – follows an uppity schoolteacher as he journeys to the remote mining town of Bundanyabba. Once there, his masculinity is questioned by drunken locals and is further tested by a horrific kangaroo hunt.

“I talked to the editor of the local paper and he explained that the men outnumbered the women there at least three to one. There were no brothels. So I wondered what they did for human contact and he said: ‘they fight’. This fighting had nothing to do with belligerence: it was about human touch. Because I felt immediately they didn’t want to hit me. They wanted me to hit them.”

It can’t have been an easy shoot with all that dust and heat? And fighting men . . .

“It’s one of the most inhospitable places on earth,” he says. “You have to admire the fortitude of the people who live there. At the time I looked like a ’60s hippie: I had hair down my back and a handlebar moustache. And when I first went into a pub, I walked in and 40 pairs of drunken eyes looked at me. And finally a guy says: ‘Hello Stalin’. And I started drinking. I did a lot of research for this picture. And he walks right up, jaw sticking out, and says it again, really loudly: ‘I said, hello Stalin’. So I said ‘I’d love to talk but I’m dead’. And after that, all those guys became my friends and watched out for me wherever I went.”

Last year, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz , based on the novel by Kotcheff's former flatmate, Mordecai Richler, also featured in the Cannes Classics programme. Next month the director will receive a special award and tribute from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. Suddenly, Ted Kotcheff is very much in vogue.

“Well, I’ve never made a film that I hated – even the films I made when I needed to work for money. When you know you have to spend a year of your life on something, it better be something that you love. You’re always aiming for a hundred. And sometimes you get a 50 or an 80.

"But you keep on going. Because films have a life of their own. And sometimes, like with Wake in Fight , you're still talking about it 40 years later."

Wake in Fright
is at the IFI, Dublin from Friday, March 7th